Louis Prima (December 7, 1910 – August 24, 1978) was an Italian-American singer, trumpter, actor and bandleader. Along with Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan, he was one of the three famous trumpeting and singing Louis’ of the swing era. Comparisons have been drawn between Armstrong and Prima, as they were New Orleans contemporaries, and both incorporated a hoarse singing voice, scatting and a sense of humor into their acts. He started out in New Orleans playing with a seven-piece jazz band, and went on to lead a swing combo in the 1930s, a big band in the 1940s and a Vegas lounge act in the 1950s.
One of Louis Prima’s most notable and earliest hits was his original composition “Sing, Sing, Sing” in 1936, which was later covered by Benny Goodman’s orchestra and which became an iconic tune for the entire swing era. In the 1930s, he moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles, where his band played regularly at night clubs and was featured in several films, including Rhythm on the Range with Bing Crosby. In 1940, he formed a conventional big band, and it was with this band that he developed a distinctive shuffle rhythm style that he dubbed “Gleeby Rhythm,” while singing most of the bands vocals.
In the 1949, Prima took on singer Keely Smith who went on to become his fourth wife and a key component of his 1950s Vegas lounge act, along with drummer Sam Butera and his backing band The Witnesses. In addition to Smith’s beautifully deep vocals, the two developed a lively stage act with Keely playing it straight and innocent in contrast to the wild and zany Prima.
One of my earliest CD purchases as a swing dancer (we’re talking about back in 1997) was the Capitol Collector Series: Louis Prima Compilation, which features 25 great songs featuring Prima and Smith’s harmonized vocals. Many of the songs are great for dancing, and some of my favorites are:
- Just a Gigolo / I Ain’t Got Nobody
- Buona sera
- Jump, Jive & Wail
- The Lip
- Whistle Stop
- 5 months, 2 weeks, 2 days
- Banana Split For My Baby
- Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home
- I’ve Got The World On A String
Another fun novelty song that Prima recorded for Disney’s cartoon production of the Jungle Book is:
Louis Prima passed away from a brain tumor in 1978, but he left behind a great musical legacy that had an impact on many of the swing revival era bands of the 1980s and later, including the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. San Francisco’s own swing band Stompy Jones, which plays regularly at Club Verdi on Tuesday nights covers Louis Prima songs all the time, and we were even fortunate to have a guest appearance of Keely Smith at the Red Devil Lounge about a year ago, while she was touring along with the London-based Jive Aces.